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Libyan forces ready to move on Gaddafi stronghold

Sep 5, 2011, 9:41 a.m.
Anti-Gaddafi forces move their tanks towards the front line from Al-Noflea, the closest area to the city of Sirte, 450 km (279.6 miles) west of Benghazi, towards Om El Khanfousa September 5, 2011. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

By Maria Golovnina

NORTH OF BANI WALID, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan forces made ready to storm a desert town held by loyalists of Muammar Gaddafi Monday but held off in the hope of a surrender that would avoid bloodshed.

On-off negotiations involving tribal elders from Bani Walid, south of Tripoli, and a fog of contradictory messages in recent days, reflect the complexities of dismantling the remnants of Gaddafi's 42-year rule and building a new political system.

At a military checkpoint some 60 km (40 miles) north of the town on the road to the capital, the latest word to journalists from Abdallah Kanshil, who is running talks for the interim government, was that a peaceful handover was coming soon.

"The surrender of the city is imminent," he said. "It is a matter of avoiding civilian casualties. Some snipers have surrendered their weapons ... Our forces are ready."

Similar statements for several few days have not been followed by an end to the siege, however. And, with communications cut, there is no word from inside the town.

Last week, a senior military commander for the National Transitional Council (NTC) said he believed Gaddafi himself was in Bani Walid, 150 km south of Tripoli, along with his son Saif al-Islam, his former heir apparent. However, Kanshil said he thought the only member of Gaddafi's entourage still in the town was his spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim. In a comment to Reuters on Saturday, Ibrahim implied he might have been in Bani Walid.

Another son of Gaddafi, Saadi, was quoted by CNN as telling the channel that he was "a little bit outside" Bani Walid, had not seen his father for two months and was trying to help bring peace despite "aggressive" talk from his brother Saif.

TRIBAL NEGOTIATORS

NTC military units are trying to squeeze pro-Gaddafi forces out of Bani Walid, as well as Gaddafi's home town of Sirte on the coast and a swathe of territory deep into the desert.

Earlier, outside Bani Walid, an NTC commander, Mohammed al-Fassi, said force now seemed the only option. "The offer is that people who committed crimes in Gaddafi's name will be put under house arrest until the new government is formed. Some of them have accepted this but others said no," he said.

Tribal politics, a feature of Libyan life that Gaddafi exploited to divide and rule, will still play a part as the NTC tries to disarm the varied groups that fought the six-month war to dislodge him, install a democracy that can survive ethnic and other divisions, and revive Libya's oil-based economy.

At Bani Walid, the Warfalla tribe, a diffuse group that includes as many as a million people, or a sixth of the population, has a key role in that its leadership centered on the town have retained loyalties to Gaddafi, while others, in cities like Misrata and Tripoli, joined the revolt.

These tribesmen are now negotiating with their kin across the political divide. "They are now talking cousin to cousin," said one Warfalla man, who spoke to Reuters privately near Bani Walid. "But as you can see it is still not going well."

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